Portland Public Schools Vote To Strike As Talks Continue

For the first time in history, Portland Public School (Oregon) employees have agreed to strike. The walkout date for the state’s largest school system is set for February 20th.

The Portland Association of Teachers members voted after an hour-long meeting and a firm yes resulted. The vote for “PAT shall call a legal strike” sounds final, but does not automatically signal a walkout. Schools will be opened and fully staffed.

Instead, Wednesday’s decision gives union negotiators permission to authorize a strike if continued negotiations do not yield a contract. PPS leaders and union representatives are scheduled to meet in another mediation session Sunday. Union leaders submit the required 10-day notification of a strike and plan to date the walkout Feb. 20. 

Gwen Sullivan, Union president, is hopeful that parents will honor the picket lines by not sending their children to school if the strike occurs. School Board Co-Chairman Greg Belisle expressed his disappointment, but is hoping a deal can be reached before the strike takes place.

“I think we’ve said it’s really hard on our communities, and it’s unfortunate that PAT took this step,” he said. “I just know it’s a really stressful time, and our responsibility is, in part, to make sure that regardless of what happens, we honor our commitment to create a safe environment for kids.”

Henry Drummonds, a Lewis and Clark Law professor, says that strike votes can help labor and management agree on a deal due to the pressure to compromise. Students and parents are watching negotiations closely, and a group of high school students walked out of class and held lunchtime meetings to protest the talks.

Negotiations between PPS and its union began last April. Though they’ve made substantial progress at various points, both labor and management have said they’€™re close to a deal — conflicts remain on several issues seen as key by both sides. The  points include: whether to eliminate early retirement incentives, how large a pay increase teachers should receive and how big a role seniority should play in who loses their jobs in case of layoffs.

Steve Suo of The Oregonian reported that as teachers entered the meeting room they pointed out the union’s chief messages that they want the district to take certain actions like hiring more teachers and reducing class sizes.

As they entered the concert hall Wednesday night, many teachers made a point of mentioning what has been one of the union’€™s chief messages: They want the district to take specific steps, including hiring more instructors, to reduce class sizes.

Both sides are prepared for a walkout despite the fact that bargaining teams are still in talks. District officials are hoping to keep the doors open if a strike occurs, but have not released detailed plans.